All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

Liberalism, Conservatism, and Catholicism: An Evaluation of Contemporary American Political Ideologies in Light of Catholic Social Teaching

A Superb Reference Work for Catholics

With politics increasingly polarized and penetrating more and more facets of life, American Catholics need to know which doctrines and parties they can support while remaining faithful to Church teaching. Professor Stephen Krason of Franciscan University of Steubenville has produced an excellent guide for the perplexed.

After defining liberalism and conservatism and distinguishing between the New Deal, anti-Communist, “old liberalism” of 1945-1960 and the more radical, activist post-1960 “new liberalism,” Krason gives a detailed, useful presentation of papal teachings, with special attention to economics. He makes clear the popes’ endorsement of private property and enterprise; their view that both employers and workers have rights and obligations; their emphatic rejection of Communism, socialism, and egalitarianism; and their insistence that the state can neither leave society, especially the needy, to laissez-faire competition, nor tax its citizens excessively. Most of the book is a thorough and scrupulously fair sifting of the ideologies. Krason assesses their philosophies by presenting their views on five core issues—the purposes of government; God, religion, and the natural law as the basis of the political order; freedom; equality; and Communism—and comparing them to Church teaching. He does likewise for specific policy proposals in economics; social welfare; agriculture; the environment; civil liberties and civil rights; education; foreign policy; defense; and disarmament.

Since conservatism has diverse perspectives, he assesses the positions of cultural conservatives (e.g., Russell Kirk), fusionists (e.g., Frank Meyer), economic libertarians (e.g., Milton Friedman, Mises, Hayek, and Wilhelm Roepke), neoconservatives (e.g., Irving Kristol), the new right, and active political conservatives such as Barry Goldwater. Overall, conservatism has “substantial correspondence” with Church teachings, especially on Communism, freedom, and the role of God, religion, and natural law. The greatest divergence is over government’s role: “conservatism does not seem to see the state’s full role in shaping the common good, it does not accept the full range of the state’s domestic social welfare role, it does not concede to the state a sufficiently large prerogative in the economic realm, and it is not aware enough of the international obligations of states growing out of the virtue of charity.”

This indictment neglects conservatism’s rightful suspicion of government power and opposition to tyranny, especially in economics, where political decisions have proven poor substitutes for market ones, And what if the state is captured by a mistaken or even evil ideology? Better a minimal state respecting freedom, dignity, and Christian values than an activist state seeking to “shape the common good” by a vision hostile to them. Overall, Krason finds conservatism closest to the Church, with old liberalism a close second and new liberalism far behind.

“In the final analysis, the crucial reason why conservatism is closest to the Church is because it best upholds the natural law and is most supportive of religion.” New liberalism is farthest from the Church “because it has become so secularized and has gone far in the direction of rejecting the natural law, especially in the area of sexual morality.”

Since conservatism shares some of liberalism’s core beliefs, such as “excessive” individualism and the value and possibility of progress, it shares in its deviations from Church teaching. But the main reason why both ideologies deviate, he rightly argues, is “their common origin in early modern political philosophy, and more generally in the thought which has characterized Western culture since the dawn of modernity.” This new thought was “a secular one–in ways, rampantly secular--and one which changed radically the notion of natural law” (his italics) from something moral to something like a law of physics.

In light of Centesimus Annus, the Pope’s 1991 economic encyclical, covered in an appendix, the ideologies retain their rankings. One might argue that given the encyclical’s strong endorsement of a morally conscious free economy, conservatism’s standing vis-à-vis Church teaching is much improved. Capitalism recognizes certain realities inherent in Creation better than any other system: scarcity, the need for productive work to sustain human life, and the self-interested aspect of human nature.

Meticulous, thorough, and impeccably scholarly, Liberalism, Conservatism and Catholicism is a superb reference work for Catholics seeking to navigate among political viewpoints, and for others interested in papal teachings and in how well (or poorly) those viewpoints measure up.

Dr. Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  • John Attarian (1956-2004) was a free-lance writer with a Ph.D. in economics. He wrote for numerous national publications and was an editorial advisor to Modern Age.